DuBose Heyward


edited by John Garraty,
copyright 1999.
The American Council of Learned Societies.
Used by permission of Oxford University Press, Inc.

Image courtesy of American Studies at the University of Virginia.
Image courtesy of American Studies at the University of Virginia.

Heyward, DuBose (31 Aug. 1885-16 June 1940), novelist, dramatist, and poet, was born Edwin DuBose Heyward in Charleston, South Carolina, the son of Edwin Watkins Heyward, a mill hand from an old and distinguished southern family ruined after the Civil War, and Jane Screven DuBose, also descended from once-prosperous plantation owners. His father died when Heyward was two, and his mother was reduced to taking in sewing to support the family. He attended a private school until he was nine and entered public school in the fourth grade but was, as he later described himself, "a miserable student," uninterested in schoolwork. He dropped out in his first year of high school, at the age of fourteen, to work as a clerk in a hardware store and later worked among African-American stevedores as a checker for a steamship company. Often sick as a child, he got polio when he was eighteen; two years later he contracted typhoid fever and the next year pleurisy. At twenty-one, Heyward and his friend Henry T. O'Neill organized a real estate and insurance company. A skilled salesman of great personal charm, he succeeded in making himself financially independent.

Always interested in literature, the young Heyward had passed the time in his sickbed writing verses and stories. In 1913 he wrote a one-act play, An Artistic Triumph, which was produced in a local theater. A derivative farce about mistaken identity, it showed little promise, but its success sharpened the young author's appetite for a literary career. Heyward never fully recovered from the illnesses of his youth. In 1917, while convalescing, he began to devote himself seriously to writing fiction and poetry. In 1918 his first published short story, "The Brute," appeared in Pagan, a Magazine for Eudaemonists. The next year he met Hervey Allen, then teaching at the nearby Porter Military Academy. The two became close friends and together formed the Poetry Society of South Carolina, which helped spark a revival of southern literature. Heyward edited the society's yearbooks until 1924 and contributed a good deal of their content. His poetry was well received, earning him a Contemporary Verse award in 1921. With Allen he published a collection, Carolina Chansons: Legends of the Low Country, in 1922. That same year the two edited a southern issue of Poetry magazine.

While spending the summer at the MacDowell Colony in New Hampshire, Heyward met Dorothy Hartzell Kuhns, a student in George Pierce Baker's playwriting workshop at Harvard. They were married in 1923 and had one child. In 1924 his first independent book, a volume of poems titled Skylines and Horizons, appeared. Largely based on themes from Charleston history, it established his local reputation as a poet. With the encouragement of his wife, Heyward determined to make a living by writing. In 1924 he gave up the business that had supported him for eighteen years, resigned as president of the Poetry Society, and moved with his wife to the Great Smokies to work on a novel. Between stints of writing, he supported himself by lecturing on southern literature at college campuses.

Porgy, published in 1925, was a powerful story of a crippled African-American beggar, set in a black waterfront neighborhood of Charleston called Catfish Row. A poignant picture of a culture seldom before depicted without quaintness or condescension, Porgy was an immediate success, described in the New York Times Book Review (7 Sept. 1925) as "a noteworthy achievement in the sympathetic interpretation of negro life by a member of an 'outside' race," and conveying "an intimate and authentic sense of the dignity, the pathos . . . the very essence of his chosen community."

Heyward's next novel, Angel (1926), dealt with mountaineers in North Carolina. It was not a popular success, but the following year he renewed his large audience with a dramatization of Porgy done in collaboration with his wife. The first major Broadway play with an all African-American cast, it was a great hit, running for a total of 367 performances in 1927-1928 and earning the Heywards a Pulitzer Prize. The play was later turned into an opera, titled Porgy and Bess (1935), with music by George Gershwin and libretto by Heyward and Ira Gershwin. Hailed as the first great American folk opera, it was influential in opening the American theater to African-American musical forms and was made into a successful motion picture in 1959.

"The Half Pint Flask," a short story dealing with the conflict between white science and supernatural forces in the African-American community, appeared as a separate volume in 1929. Later that year Heyward returned to Catfish Row as a setting for Mamba's Daughters, his longest novel, which chronicled the social elevation of an African-American girl in white society as an opera singer. In 1931 he published Jasbo Brown and Selected Poems. A play, Brass Ankle, dealing with the problems of a mulatto in small-town white society, was produced that same year but was a commercial failure. Abandoning the theme of race in 1932, Heyward published Peter Ashley, a romantic novel set in pre-Civil War Charleston. The next year he answered the siren call to Hollywood, where he wrote screenplays for Eugene O'Neill's The Emperor Jones (1933) and Pearl Buck's The Good Earth (1934). In 1936 he published the novel Lost Morning. Set in the Piedmont region, the story is about the competing values of business and the artistic life. In the year before his death of a heart attack in Tryon, North Carolina, he published Star-Spangled Virgin, a novelette about a society of blacks whose harmony with nature in the Virgin Islands is disrupted by the effects of the New Deal. That year the Heywards' dramatization of Mamba's Daughters, starring Ethel Waters, was produced on Broadway; he also published a children's book written for his nine-year-old daughter Jenifer.

A slight, graceful figure with courtly manners, Heyward was personally popular and widely admired. He was a member of the Poetry Society of America and the National Institute of Arts and Letters. Although his poetry has been largely dismissed as fragmentary and conventional and the plots of his fiction criticized as melodramatic, his sensitivity to the rhythms of African-American life has retained its vitality and given him, and the society he so keenly observed and so sympathetically celebrated, a lasting place in American fiction.

Page created on 4/8/2006 10:26:10 PM

Last edited 1/6/2017 7:33:59 PM

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"DuBose Heyward has gone largely unrecognized as the author of the finest set of lyrics in the history of the American musical theater - namely, those of Porgy and Bess. There are two reasons for this, and they are connected. First, he was primarily a poet and novelist, and his only song lyrics were those that he wrote for Porgy. Second, some of them were written in collaboration with Ira Gershwin, a full-time lyricist, whose reputation in the musical theater was firmly established before the opera was written. But most of the lyrics in Porgy - and all of the distinguished ones - are by Heyward. I admire his theater songs for their deeply felt poetic style and their insight into character. It's a pity he didn't write any others. His work is sung, but he is unsung."
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